Earth tremors alarm world leaders on eve of L'Aquila summit

Emergency helicopters will be on standby as the world leaders meet in the Italian city wrecked by April's earthquakes
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The Independent Online

The G8 summit in the Italian earthquake-struck city of L'Aquila this week risks being overshadowed by fears that another disaster could hit the area during the meeting of world leaders.

An elaborate evacuation plan involving presidential and prime ministerial helicopters on standby to airlift leaders from the summit has been drawn up after a series of tremors in the city in the past few weeks sent alarm through foreign embassies.

Yet the blueprint for "Una fuga rapida" – rapid flight – hatched by Silvio Berlusconi's security officials risked fuelling the perception that the G8 leaders are out of touch with the issues on the agenda facing hundreds of millions of people worldwide, including climate change, hunger and mass unemployment.

If an earthquake strikes L'Aquila once the summit is under way on Wednesday, helicopters, including President Obama's Marine One and Gordon Brown's, will airlift leaders to safety, according to the emergency plan. Steps will be taken to allow a special cavalcade of cars ferrying more than 1,000 delegates. Meanwhile, many survivors are living in tent cities after the April quake.

Last month, Mr Berlusconi insisted the converted barracks where the three-day summit will take place were shock-proof from aftershocks from the 5.8 earthquake that killed 300. But embassy officials from G8 nations, including those representing the White House, have pressed for an emergency plan after tremors in the past week.

According to reports in La Repubblica newspaper, there is a two-phase plan of evacuation if an earthquake hits L'Aquila. If one occurs before the event starts on Wednesday, the entire summit will transfer to Rome. G8 organisers will claim that having helicopters on standby is standard security practice for summits, yet the newspaper said this was pressure from foreign governments.

Asked about the British response to the plan, a spokesman for Mr Brown said: "This is a matter for the Italians and we will go along with whatever they decide."

On the eve of the gathering, as protesters gathered in the city of Vicenza, Mr Brown last night warned that the G8 hosted by the Italian premier must not "frustrate" the progress made at the G20 London summit on reforming the world's financial structures.

The British Prime Minister will put pressure on Mr Berlusconi to join the US and Britain in pledging more aid for food security and climate change for developing countries. Mr Berlusconi has been criticised by some G8 officials for spending less than 0.1 per cent of its gross national income on aid.

Mr Brown will announce £1.1bn in funding for agriculture and food security in the poorest countries, following President Obama's similar pledge for $1bn from the US in 2010.

Writing in The Independent on Sunday opposite, the Prime Minister said: "Last month, for the first time, the number going hungry passed one billion people. That's almost one in seven of our fellow human beings who are not guaranteed even basics. A hunger emergency looms and the world must act. We need an urgent response from all the world leaders at this week's G8 under the leadership of Prime Minister Berlusconi – and we must deliver."

Downing Street officials denied that Mr Berlusconi was being singled out for criticism. Yet the tough message from the Prime Minister left the impression that Mr Brown and other leaders want to exploit Mr Berlusconi's current difficulties over sex scandals. His wife, Veronica Lario, who has filed for divorce, will be absent from the line-up of first ladies.

Mr Brown is to stop short of pressing for a further fiscal stimulus after his attempt at getting world leaders to agree the move at the G20 failed. German politics is in the middle of a debate about tax cuts ahead of an election this autumn. Instead, Downing Street said yesterday that "now is not the time for fiscal contraction" but for "ensuring public investment can encourage private investment to grow".

On climate change, Mr Brown has proposed the creation of a £60bn international fund for poorer countries. Mr Brown will say: "The world cannot stand by and let events take their course. The need for co-ordinated international action to implement the decisions we have taken has never been more crucial. If we do not take the necessary action now to strengthen the world economy and put in place the conditions for sustainable world growth, we will be confronted with avoidable unemployment for years to come."

Mr Brown will tomorrow travel to Evian for a bilateral summit with French president Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of Wednesday's G8 meeting. One subject that is expected to arise on the margins of both Evian and L'Aquila summits is the candidacy of Tony Blair for EU president. Mr Blair's hopes of becoming the first person to take the role suffered a setback last month when the IoS revealed that he had demanded that the Chilcot inquiry into Iraq be held in private. Last week it emerged that Mr Sarkozy, who previously backed Mr Blair, now wants former Spanish premier Felipe Gonzalez. Now Mr Blair's plans are further dashed by new moves by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, to block his bid, the IoS has learnt. Mrs Merkel, who could be a candidate herself if she loses this autumn's election in Germany, has renewed her opposition to Mr Blair and this is likely to be discussed informally at the G8. An EU diplomat said last night that Mrs Merkel knew that Mr Blair's part in the Iraq war would play badly with the German electorate, which votes later this year. Mr Blair remains interested in the job but is taking soundings among friends and allies about how to promote his cause.

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